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How a 100+ years of bearing and railway experience is helping revolutionise maintenance.

Posted by Luke Upton on Nov 14, 2017

SKF 5.jpgThe rail industry looked quite different when SKF was founded in Sweden in 1907. Steam trains were the order of the day, with carriages strictly divided by ticket price and speeds peaking at 95km/h. But one area of rail is as crucial then as it is now – maintenance. An essential ingredient in the successful running of a rail network is a well maintained system and now SKF are bringing their 110 years of technological experience to digitising this process and offering major benefits to clients seeking to improve their maintenance regimes. And today we gain an exclusive insight into these innovations, and speak to Nils Ekholm and Mark Rhodes of SKF to learn more about how their products are replacing traditional maintenance regimes and helping increase railway vehicle safety, reliability, efficiency and service intervals.

SKF is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of bearings and an industry leader in axle box and drive system bearing design. A proud industrial heritage, and the rare combination of both design and manufacturing has ensured they are in the perfect position to develop the next generation of maintenance tools.

SKF Insight Rail sensor being mounted on the axlebox

We ask Nils Ekholm, Technical Leader condition monitoring, SKF for more on their path to offering this a new solution; “The rail industry’s prevailing maintenance regime is to service trains on a time or mileage basis. Though it has been used successfully for many years, it does not take account of whether parts actually need replacing. Nor is it effective at preventing breakdowns. Condition-based monitoring (CBM), which measures parameters such as vibration and temperature to spot anomalies at an early stage, has been commonly applied for a long time in many industries. However, the railway sector has been slow to adopt it – due in part to a number of safety regulations that govern it but also to that suitable technology has not been available.”

Mark Rhodes Technical Leader product development, SKF continues; “The main factor is efficiency. Rail schedules are crowded, and tracks are more congested. Rail operators are under pressure to work as efficiently as possible, and keep their rolling stock in good working order. Trains need to be out on the track – ferrying passengers around – rather than spending long periods of time in maintenance depots, being serviced. But if maintenance is a drag on resources, disruptions, caused by breakdowns, are even worse. So in addition to cutting maintenance time, rail operators must minimise the breakdowns that cause so much misery for commuters.”

Commissioning of the SKF Insight Rail sensor is done through an app

The solution that Nils, Mark and the team at SKF has developed to help railways overcome the challenge of maintenance is SKF Insight Rail a powerful blend of the bearing technology for which the company is renowned and cutting edge wireless communications.

If bearings have long been considered the heart of rotating machinery then SKF Insight makes them the brain as well. Enabled by self-powered, wireless sensors, SKF Insight constantly monitors bearing performance.

SKF Insight Rail gives key information on the state of critical wheel-set components. It relies on retrofitting a small advanced, wireless sensor to the wheelset axlebox assembly – which takes just a few minutes for a complete wheel-set– to detect bearing damage and wheel flats quickly and accurately. By raising wheel-set maintenance efficiency practices, it helps to keep rolling stock in good working order.

Despite being in a noisy environment, the wireless sensor picks up inconsistencies in the vibration of a bearing as it begins to fail. Sophisticated vibration signal processing and algorithms separate the signal from the noise, ensuring that the sensor produces and sends accurate data for further remote diagnostic analysis if needed.

Challenges the rail in environment are also overcome, Mark tells us more; “Our system is compliant to railway standards for vibration, shock, noise, humidity, salt mist, fire and smoke. Temperature can cause problems for some, but our system operates between -40°C to +85°C.”

Reporting interface with clear and actionable information

Earlier versions of this technology sent the information from the sensors to a wired processor installed on the rail vehicle. But now the processor has been removed, and SKF Insight uses wireless data transmission – sending data directly from the sensor to the cloud and further on to the remote diagnostics centre, using mobile networks.

As well as bearing data, the system analyses information on speed and positional data using GPS. All the generated data is stored in the cloud. However receiving data is one thing, acting upon it is something else. How does SKF help overcome this challenge?

“Rail operators do not want to plough through mountains of data and interpret it. We at SKF have worked to reduce the amount of data sent to the customer. What we offer is clear recommendations for action. So, once the data has been processed and analysed it is used to produce a simple report. If an action is need, an alarm will trigger indicating action is needed. We then check the output and produce a report – such as recommending a planned replacement of the bearing” says Nils Ekholm. 


Launched first in 2013 and first piloted in the Wind Turbine industry, the system has been through the development phase, and a successful field trial with the Swedish national railway operator, SJ, where it accurately diagnosed three damaged bearings. Three pilots are currently running. And if you are interested in eliminating failure-prone outliers in the field before they develop into an unplanned maintenance issue, optimizing maintenance scheduling based on based on real conditions in the field and extending maintenance intervals significantly thus reducing the maintenance cost and life cycle cost (LCC) then the SKF team are happy to talk to you!

For more information contact Maurizio Giovannelli - 

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Topics: Telecommunications, Rolling Stock

Luke Upton

Written by Luke Upton

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